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Donovan Schaefer

Donovan O. Schaefer is a departmental lecturer in science and religion at the University of Oxford. He earned his B.A. in the interdisciplinary Religion, Literature, and the Arts program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His master’s and doctoral degrees are from Syracuse University in New York. After completing his doctorate, he held a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Haverford College. His first book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke 2015) challenges the notion that religion is inextricably linked to language and belief, proposing instead that it is primarily driven by affects.

The Wild Experiment: Feeling, Secularism, and the Limits of Science

Birmingham 2016

‘I am like a gambler, & love a wild experiment’.
– Charles Darwin,
letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, March 26, 1863

Rather than exploring the outer limits of science, this paper considers its inner limit—a limit that is embedded within its method and that shapes all of its products. Following a lineage from David Hume to William James to contemporary affect theory, neuroscience, and feminist science and technology studies, I suggest that science—and all other forms of knowledge production—rather than being an operation of disinterested reason, is an emotionally saturated process.

Knowledge is a way of feeling our way around the world. There are obvious moments—of wonder or frustration—where we can see that knowledge-production is suffused with affect. My argument is that these obvious moments are only the most extreme, most visible manifestations of a much larger global system of affects intertwined with knowledge-production, sustaining science at the micro-level. This need not lead to radical solipsism. Rather, it explains epistemic diversity—when multiple people look at the same data and reach different conclusions—in a new way: what Jakob von Uexküll called the ‘feeling tones’ of objects shape the contours of what seems reasonable to us, leading to divergent interpretations. This goes not only for the natural sciences, but the human and social sciences. All endeavours of knowledge production are constituted by this affective connective tissue.

This model of science has direct implications for public narratives of science, religion, and secularism. The contemporary New Atheism, for instance, precisely by seeing science as unlimited by subjective feelings, believes that all partial, emotional formations of knowledge, such as religion, must eventually be displaced. An exploration of the New Atheist Christopher Hitchens surfaces the affective dimensions embedded within what Talal Asad calls ‘formations of the secular’.